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Anton Joseph Lucanus

Nanoscience: the answer to our environmental woes?

As we bid farewell to the current year and usher in a new one, the prospect of ‘doomsday’ becomes more real, and more urgent, than ever. Fearing the risks of climate change (perhaps more appropriately known as climate panic) has become a national past time, and as our earth becomes drier, hotter and more unpredictable than ever before, scientists, governments and civil society are becoming increasingly desperate to solve the environmental crises with which we are faced.

Nanoscience - the study of structures and materials to the scale of nanometers – has been panegyrized as the answer to all our problems. Nanoscience has, for some time now, been celebrated for its potential to revolutionize the biomedical, manufacturing, healthcare, IT, energy, electronics and aerospace sectors and is already doing so to an extent. Already, nanotechnology has been used to develop hundreds of new products, from batteries, to sunscreens, coatings, televisions, plastics – even food and cosmetics. Nanoparticles are being made to reinvent lightweight bottles, cartons and packaging, while specialized storage containers made with silver nanoparticles are being developed to kill potential bacteria present within those containers.

And the technological application of nanoscience (nanotechnology, the practice of designing ultrasmall particles) is now emerging as a promising means of addressing these problems practically. It has been recognized as capable of promoting better plant growth and development, making agriculture more sustainable due to the reduction of waste. But ethical concerns regarding the application of nanoscience on a wider scale remain, which appear to be holding back the industry. Nonetheless, excitement surrounding the possibilities it means for the environment is growing stronger day by day.

Just recently, scientists have been urged to focus on developing applications that help improve soil protection, in a bid to solve one of the many environmental crises with which we are currently faced. But it’s just one of the many applications which might be able to help make our planet a greener, healthier place. Nanotechnology is deemed highly capable of capturing, converting and storing energy with greater efficiency than ever before possible, and has the potential to produce highly efficient energy production, to scale, to meet the increasing global energy demand. In respects to water desalination and purification, nanotechnology has also been touted a potential solution to supplying clean water globally. The opportunities nanoscience, and nanotechnology, brings are endless.

Graphene – a type of carbon that consists of a single layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal lattice - has been lauded a gamechanger because of its ability to make concrete greener and more resilient to future shocks and strains. In the current era, where natural disasters and climate change-induced hazards are becoming more and more frequent, people around the world are looking for better ways to design buildings, so they are more able to withstand such shocks. By incorporating a form of carbon into concrete, nanofabrication can make concrete stronger, more water-resistant and composite, essentially helping to reduce emissions. Scientists at the University of Exeter have been experimenting with the ancient building material in new and novel ways this past year in the hope that, when scaled up in production, the new material will mean lower-cost, more environmentally friendly building processes. Low-cost because researchers are able to use roughly half the materials usually required to make concrete. 

Scientists have also developed a ‘paint-on’ polymer-based heat-reflective coating for windows that could improve the energy efficiency of windows, at a low cost. This super cool invention has the potential to drastically reduce the price of retrofitting a window, while resulting in annual energy savings that equate to taking 5 million cars off the road. Nanoscale sensor technologies might also lead to improvements in agrochemicals, and scientists are currently developing nanomaterials that can take carbon dioxide from the air, capture toxic pollutants from water and degrade solid waste into useful products.

Nano sponges have also been developed at Berkeley Lab that could provide lower-cost alternatives to reducing power plant-induced greenhouse gas emissions. These powerful little sponges are eight times more carbon dioxide permeable than materials composed only of polymer, meaning they are much better at preventing greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere, thus contributing to climate change. Nanoscience is also responsible for having discovered ways of making solar cells more affordable and environmentally stable. These specialised solar cells, made of a new material called Cesium Titanium (IV) Bromide, are about 1,000 times thinner than silicon solar cells, says Nitin Padture professor of engineering at Brown’s Institute for Molecular and Nanoscale Innovation and co-author of the university study which has developed the technology.

Nanoscience won’t solve all the world’s problems, nor will be applicable to most people and businesses. A document translation agency, for example, won’t benefit from the myriad possibilities of the new science. But the verdict is in, and nanoscience certainly has the potential to address many of complex environmental problems that are only worsening day by day as human populations continue to grow, consume and negatively impact planet earth.

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